Commentary

Junior has more on his mind than Kyle

Updated: June 12, 2009, 7:11 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Kyle Busch was at it again Friday, bigger than ever, insulting vast new masses -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s whole fan base.

And Lance McGrew, Earnhardt's new crew chief, laughed loud and long at that.

It started when Busch was asked about the public controversy over his smashing a trophy guitar in Victory Lane after winning a Nationwide race at Nashville last week.

"It was fun and a lot of people enjoyed it and thought it was different -- the sport's not so vanilla," Busch said.

And then, as has happened every couple of weeks lately, Busch just couldn't help himself.

"A lot of people hated it and I guess those are the ones with '88' [Earnhardt's current car number] tattooed on their arms," Busch continued, his little smile growing ever more mischievous. "Or maybe still '8' [Earnhardt's old car number]."

His cannon thus primed and loaded, Busch fired: "I've got no issues with Junior -- it's his fans that are crazy, but that's all right."

Then Busch poured it on. With all the hoopla over the guitar smashing, "Sounds to me like the most popular driver award goes to Kyle Busch this year, right?" he said.

The obvious reference was to Earnhardt's perennial recognition -- by fan balloting, cheers in the stands and merchandise sales -- as far and away NASCAR's most popular driver.

Kyle Busch A lot of people hated it and I guess those are the ones with '88' tattooed on their arms. Or maybe still '8.'

-- Kyle Busch

At the very idea Busch would call out Earnhardt's legions, McGrew could manage only "That's pure Kyle" between spells of laughter.

McGrew, who replaced Tony Eury Jr. as Earnhardt's crew chief 15 days ago, once worked with Busch in the Nationwide Series when Busch was at Hendrick Motorsports.

"He's amazingly talented -- unbelievably," McGrew said of Busch. "But, boy, when he says something -- what comes up comes out. There's no doubt about it."

McGrew found the good laugh useful. He and Earnhardt had a lot more on their plates Friday than just the jab du jour from Busch.

Earnhardt is defending champion of Sunday's Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Or, put another way in light of Earnhardt's dismal slump -- which led to his separation from Eury -- this weekend marks a full year since Earnhardt has won a Sprint Cup race.

Further, Earnhardt had to deal with the removal of cash support from Chevrolet from his own JR Motorsports, which fields Nationwide cars, due to Chevrolet's bankruptcy.

Earnhardt had so much on his mind Friday that he didn't understand my question -- or maybe I wasn't clear enough -- about Busch's latest shots.

I termed them "the latest Kyle-ism" to Earnhardt, and other journalists standing near us told me, after he'd returned to his hauler, that he must have thought I said "columnist" before I told him the latest.

But leave it to my ESPN colleague Marty Smith to point out that at least part of Earnhardt's answer was entirely applicable.

"My fans handle themselves well and they're good people," Earnhardt said. "So I think anyone who would be calling them out and stirring them up is causing problems not only for himself but everyone else in this sport."

Perhaps the driver who best understood how much Busch had bitten off this time was Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

"Kyle, I'm sure, at points, regrets stirring up the pot," Johnson said. "But at other times I think he thrives on it …

"He's already got the fans on him, but now I think he's getting them upset in a whole new wave," Johnson continued. "Who knows? He's probably loving it."

Clearly, Busch is. His latest volley came on top of his remark two weeks ago at Dover, Del., about Earnhardt's crew chief change, that "It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief."

That on top of "I'm proud of the fact that I'm outperforming a guy [Earnhardt] that replaced me at Hendrick," which Busch said at Martinsville in March.

And that on top of "There's probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulders who doesn't seem to win very often," which Busch said at Bristol, also in March.

Since Earnhardt replaced Busch at Hendrick Motorsports and Busch moved to Joe Gibbs Racing at the beginning of 2008, Busch has won 11 Cup races to Earnhardt's one.

But Earnhardt on Friday expressed hope that he could actually break his year-old slump here Sunday.

Isn't it too soon in the rebuilding process to think about an outright win?

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr
AP Photo/Russ Hamilton, Jr.Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Lance McGrew are feeling pretty good about their start together.

"Oh, no," Earnhardt said. "You show up every week thinking you can win and hoping you can win. So it's not too soon to think about that."

As for Chevrolet's cutting of funding to his Nationwide team, Earnhardt characterized the manufacturer's cash percentage of his budget as "small, very small. The sponsorships obviously are the biggest part of our budget. Our relationship with Chevrolet was more just about brand loyalty."

Earnhardt and McGrew were at first deeply disappointed in their 27th-place finish at Pocono last Sunday, their second outing together. But they were relieved to find the reason -- a broken suspension part -- when they returned to the Hendrick compound.

"When you get a call from Mr. H [team owner Rick Hendrick], obviously that's going to concern you," McGrew said. "He was curious about what happened last weekend, and so were we."

So they did a sort of autopsy of their car. "We found a little mechanical issue," McGrew said. "We feel like we nailed that down, and we understand what happened, and did some stuff to keep it from happening again."

Even the mechanical failure was a boost to Earnhardt's confidence in his midrace diagnostics.

"In the middle part of the race I'd commented to the engineer that I thought that part had failed," Earnhardt said. "It's pretty good to be able to point at something and say, 'Here's the problem.'"

As for Earnhardt's general state of mind, "I think he's fine," McGrew said, and broke into baseball pitcher rehab lingo. "We're working on getting his slider back, a little confidence back, and trying to stay on the same page. So far, so good."

Earnhardt had become notorious for grumbling to Eury on the radio during bad outings, but at Pocono, "He really didn't," McGrew said.

"He's definitely trying. There is no doubt about it," McGrew continued. "I can definitely tell. He wants to be more involved in the whole program. He's asking better questions. He's giving better feedback. He's definitely engaged."

So Busch has backed off Junior. And taken on his legions.

And just think: There are still 21 more Fridays left in the season for Busch to meet with the media.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE